Melissa Wukasch BoneThursday 30 August 2012 at 6:02 pm.
“The longer you look back, the farther you can look forward” Winston Churchill
My interest in my Wendish heritage has been piqued over the last few years, and recently in a course on Christian History at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, I wrote this paper to explore my long-lost roots. Perhaps you will discover yours too!
The topic was on the Crusades of the Middle Ages, and I found out to my surprise that there had been a so-called “Wendish Crusade” back in 1147! So my paternal heritage went back to before the 10th century! Now I wanted to learn more about this group of people so long ago, and about this crusade. (My great-great grandfather, Mathias Wukasch, was on the Ben Nevis ship as a little boy when the group of Wends emigrated to Texas in the mid-19th century.) Herein is an edited version of my paper for that course.
The so-called Wendish Crusade of 1147 was actually part of the Second Crusade of the same time period. It was fought on German soil, largely by Saxon Germans (some Danes as well) against the pagan tribes of Wends. Since this ‘crusade’ was embedded into the whole of the crusade period, it has not been given the same attention as the crusades that went east toward the Holy Land. This one went north, into Slavic-held lands. It was fought ostensibly to gain pagan souls for the kingdom of heaven, but as was (and still is) common in ‘holy wars’, the kingdoms of man played a significant role in the motives and outcomes of the crusade. “The Crusade seems to be little understood in terms of how it was conceived and what it was supposed to accomplish… some say it was meant to subjugate the Sorbian (Wendish) minority using religion as a pretext, and others yet see it as a pure conversion effort." (1) (the term Sorb is currently more accurate, but was not in common usage in the time period being studied)
Who were the Wends?
The etymology of the word ‘Wend’ comes from the Greek Venedi, a term which Pliny and Tacitus used to refer to the Slavs (2). The title of ‘Wends’ in the Middle Ages referred to a group of Slavic tribes who lived mainly between the Oder and Elbe rivers in Germany. This collection of tribes was distinctive from the northern groups of Slavs that inhabited Ukraine and Russia, and the southern group that lived mainly in what is now Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The history of the western Slavs, the Wends, is thus intertwined with that of Germany, the two groups intersecting time and again throughout the early to late middle ages.
The Wends were a forest people who lived mainly by hunting, fishing and fowling. They were agrarian, raised livestock and traded in resources such as honey, wax and furs (3). This group of Slavs mostly lived in an area in the north-east of German frontier lands. The English missionary St. Boniface speaking from the 8th century praised the Wends for their “civic and domestic virtues and gentle character in contrast to the barbaric Germans”. (2) However, the Slavs had in effect reversed German expansion in uprisings and invasions in 983 in the sack of Hamburg and again in 1066, effectively destroying the bishoprics of Mecklenburg and Oldenburg. (4) But as the German economy grew in the middle ages, so did German expansion, and thus the encroachment into the area that the Slavic migrants held. These groups would be in conflict and the Wendish Slavs forced to convert to the faith of the Holy Roman Empire throughout the ninth and tenth centuries.
In the 11th and 12th centuries Germany was still part of the Holy Roman Empire. Under Charlemagne’s rule Wendish land had been conquered and annexed to Germany. German expansion was then held back by Wendish tribes for about two centuries until the beginning of the 1100s. Christianity had been steadily increasing along with immigration into the eastern frontier of Germany, the so-called Drang nach Osten, but the areas inhabited by pagan tribes were not yet under total German rule. Missionaries were sent out from monasteries to convert the ‘heathen’. Some, such as Vicelen and Otto of Bamburg, used peaceful means…others, however, employed not only the word, but the sword: “The Christian missionaries were motivated not only by religious conviction but also by economic advantages such as the collection of tithes. Because the Christianization was by force and not persuasion, it was not an inward change and the Slavs observed only the outward forms of Christianity.” (3)
Indeed, the Wends were only sporadically loyal to the German conquests and rebelled against them often, at times pushing back the Saxon migration into their lands with force of their own. By the beginning of the 12th century, the Wends had still not been fully converted to Christianity.
Wendish Paganism – Conversion from what?
One can see vestiges of Greek and Roman mythology in the Panslavic gods of the medieval ages. The Wendish tribes were polytheistic pagans. “Like the [pre-Christian] Germans, the Slavs were polytheists who worshipped a variety of gods diversely responsible for weather, fertility and the fortunes of war.” (4) Their chief god, among others, was Svarozic, the personification of the sun (a common theme in paganism). Other Slavic gods included Perun, god of thunder and lightning, Pripegala, god of fire, Veles, god of livestock as well as gods of life and death, black and white, light and darkness. (2) By the beginning of the eleventh century historian and bishop Thietmar of Merseburg in his Chronicon, speaks of the Wendish pagan temple near Stettin (Szczecin), deep in the forest, decorated with carved images of gods and goddesses. (4) Thietmar described how auguries (prophecies and omens) were sought using spears and horses, wine goblets and grain in pagan ceremonies. Though St. Boniface may have described the Slavs as ‘gentle’, they were known to sacrifice Christians and offer their heads to idols according to Adam of Bremen, another chronicler of that era. (4) Indeed, Fletcher writes that ‘the Wends had developed a pagan faith of their own which was both militant and organized’. (4) They had some means of wealth too. Apparently temple taxes were imposed, the Slavs were able to build shrines and temples to their gods, amass gold, purple textiles (a treasure in itself) and jewels. This gave the Wends greater power, and they became organized, funded and resistant to oppression and open to expansion. This posed a great problem for the growing power of the German aristocracy and missionary movement, who wanted land, tribute and souls for their own kingdoms.
A Call to the North
The idea of a ‘just war’ slowly evolved during the medieval period. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was no longer a sin to kill a man in a battle waged for secular ends, therefore giving papal approval to the idea of a ‘just war’ for both religious and non-religious reasons. (5) The Wendish Crusade was waged for both. The fall of Edessa in 1144 had shocked Christendom, causing Pope Eugenius III (1145-53) to rally the troops in the cause of Christ. “The Second Crusade was born by papal pronouncement but it drew breath from the words of Bernard of Clairvaux”, writes Thomas Madden in his book on the Crusades. (6) That papal pronouncement by Eugenius III, entitled Quantum praedessores, looked back on the glories of the First Crusade, encouraging the knights of Europe to once again take up arms for Jesus Christ in the Holy Land. To this he added that there would be certain ‘crusading privileges’ for the warriors, such as protection of property and suspension of interest and debt collection. (6) Pope Eugenius did not want Germans to fight in this crusade, however. He needed them on European soil to support him in his internal battles with the Normans. But crusader zeal spread throughout all of the Holy Roman Empire once again and the Germans were aroused to war. Bernard of Clairvaux preached with fervor in Saxony, inciting crusade fever. On March 12, 1147, a “large body of mostly Saxon crusaders requested that they be allowed to fulfill their crusading vow by waging war on the pagan Wends living east of the Elbe River” (6), instead of going east to the Levant and Jerusalem. Though the motivation to war may have been somewhat the same, the destination was very different. The Saxons (and some Danes as well) fought the Wends to not only make for themselves assured places in heaven, but to bring the Wends along with them. The object was to “convert by the sword” and not accept peace until the Wends were baptized, confessing Christians. Bernard’s words speak for themselves: “We utterly forbid that for any reason whatsoever a truce should be made with these peoples, either for the sake of money or for the sake of tribute til such as time as, by God’s help, they shall be either converted or wiped out”. (6)
Hearts or Hectares: the many motives of the Wendish Crusade
In the crusading spirit of the times, the Saxons, Danes, Polish and other feudal powers used religious motives to justify their material intentions regarding conquest, rule and tribute. The Christian crusaders targeted the Obodrite fort of Dobin and Lutizian fort of Demmin. Niklot (a chieftan who led a coalition of pagan Wendish tribes) was able to defend Dobin from both Danish and Saxon invaders for a while, but finally gave up after the countryside was ravaged. The Saxon army under Henry the Lion withdrew after Niklot agreed to have Dobin’s garrison baptized. But the baptisms were done under duress. These were ‘token’ conversions, often done by the Wends to save their necks, not their souls. After the withdrawal of the Christian armies, they either returned to their pagan rituals or practiced a type of syncretized Christian/pagan faith. Fletcher writes of the outcome: “Nyklot and the Wends were chased up and made a sulky peace with the Saxons. Tribute and plunder were exacted, Christian captives were freed, a heathen temple burnt down and some Wends were dunked in the waters of baptism in token of surrender…” (4) Many judged the baptisms and conversions as false.
The stated goal of the Crusaders was the ‘conversion of the pagans’, but most sought additional territory and tithe for their domains and dioceses. The chronicler Vincent of Prague, who recorded these events, concluded that “[the intention] was more to conquer the land than to Christianize its inhabitants”…(7) This same chronicler characterized Henry the Lion’s martial moves against the Slavs; in all the military operations “there was no talk about Christianity, but only about money.”(7) Adam of Bremen, writing in the eleventh century, quotes the converted Gottshalk as saying that “the Slavic peoples without a doubt could easily have been converted to Christianity long ago but for the avarice of the Saxons… they are more intent on the payment of tribute than on the conversion of the heathen.” (4) Therefore the Wendish crusade was both a military/material campaign as well as a religious one. It was also a fruitless one in some ways. Many historians agree that the contradictory and competing political interests of the participating lords led to numerous defensive actions on the part of the beleaguered Slavs. (7) Slowly but surely their lands were taken away through creeping Germanization, and the Wendish tribes were effectively assimilated by the end of the 12th century.
Convert or Die: A True Christian Holy War?
As Wukasch writes in his book on the Wends: “from the 10th to the 12th centuries, the Sorbs were subjected to forced Christianization by the Germans; their choice was ‘conversion or destruction… introducing Christianity by means of fire and sword’ ”. (2) Helmold of Bosau, a source writing from that era in his Chronica Slavorum, presented the wars as just, arguing that the Saxons were just repossessing lands which had once been rightfully theirs, as signs of earlier occupation had shown. Retrieval of lost property, as lawyers had agreed for centuries, was a just cause for a just war. Helmold also saw Count Adolf of Holstein, the emperor who had ‘a Saxon frontiersman’s mentality’ as “a warrior of the Lord rooting out the superstitions of idolatry”. (4) Therefore most thought of this Crusade as fully justifiable, indeed, noble and godly.
The Wendish crusade achieved mixed results. The crusade failed to achieve the conversion of most of the Wends. Indeed, the abbot of Corvey, another churchman who had accompanied the armies stated flatly, “It didn’t work”. (4) The Wendish Crusade pressured the Slavic tribes into Christianity and the giving up of their lands as tribute to the princes of Germany. By the end of the 12th century, most of Germany was under Christian German rule. The Wends were gradually assimilated into the German population that occupied their past areas of colonization. Some of these means of assimilation were peaceful; others were likened to a military take-over. Overall, the Wends were coerced into an acceptance of Christianity in the 12th century, but “their hearts and minds had yet to be won”. (4)
The “Christianization” of the northern Slavs basically meant “Germanization”. In the end, the Wends (now referred to as Sorbs in Germany) were whittled down to a small Slavonic nation within a larger nation, occupying a wee wedge of Germany bordering Poland, the Czech Republic, and the eastern fringes of Germany. Their Christian religion is expressed in both the Catholic and Lutheran faiths. It is this area, called Lusatia, that my
paternal heritage hales from.
The reason I wanted to do this short research paper was because of my interest in the Wends, and in my heritage from the part of Germany that they now inhabit. I found this quote interesting from a professor of history who has written about the Wendish immigration to Texas, where my great-great grandfather settled in the 1850’s: "The relationship between the history of a people and its common characteristics is an intriguing question. To what extent did the historical experience of the Wends generate certain characteristics? Many references have identified them as conservative, clannish, convivial, or stubborn. Any generalization along these lines remains nothing more than speculation. Nevertheless the centuries of resistance to foreign threats must have left some legacy." (3)
In some respects, that legacy has been the Christianization of a pagan people group. The question that runs through my mind is this: if the Wendish Crusade of 1147 had not taken place almost a millennium ago, possibly resulting in the forced conversion of some of my long-gone paternal ancestors, would I be a Christian today, studying God’s word at a Christian seminary? Only God knows.
1. Schaarschmidt, Gunter. Email correspondence (2009)
2. Wukasch, Charles. A Rock Against Alien Waves: A History of the Wends, Austin: Concordia University Press (2004)
3. Nielsen, George R. In Search of a Home: Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration, College Station: Texas A & M University Press (1989)
4. Fletcher, Richard. The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, Berkeley: University of California Press (1997)
5. Southern, R.W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books (1970)
6. Madden, Thomas F. The New Concise History of the Crusades. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc. (2006)
7. Herrmann, Joachim. Die Slawen in Deutschland: Ein Handbuch. Berlin: Akadamie-Verlag (1970): 325-329; translated (with thanks) by my father, Richard Wukasch